Valve enables region locking in Steam, to stop you buying cheap games from Russia
Steam, one of the sole bastions of sanity when it comes to digital games distribution, has enabled region locking on games. This means if you buy a game in one territory, you can no longer use it in another territory — much like DVD region locking (but more effective, as Steam’s region locking hasn’t been cracked). With no official statement from Valve, there are two possible reasons for the region locks: Unstable currencies, like the Russian ruble, caused by the crashing price of crude oil — or maybe Valve (and publishers) are just sick of people buying games cheaply in other territories, then redeeming them in their (more expensive) home countries.
Steam’s region locks appear to have been applied early this morning, without a public announcement by Valve. One of the developers of Euro Truck Simulator 2, Tomáš Duda, tweeted about a region lock affecting Russia and members of the CIS (Ukraine, Belarus, etc.) — and later, he said that similar blocks were in place for Southeast Asia and South America. As always, there’s also a NeoGAF thread discussing the issue — but be warned that there’s a lot of misplaced vitriol in there. Games that were redeemed before the region lock seem to be unaffected.
In case you weren’t aware, Steam has always provided localized pricing. Mostly this has worked as intended, ensuring gamers don’t get screwed over by big fluctuations in exchange rates, but the system definitely isn’t perfect. It isn’t unusual, for example, for a game to be cheaper in one country — maybe not by much, but for some people a difference of $5 or $10 can be pretty significant. Sometimes publishers do actually price their games lower in some countries, due to lower purchasing power. Because of these price differences (see SteamPrices.com), plus the ability to easily gift Steam games, there is a roaring trade in cross-region game sales. You can either get these cross-region games from other people, or you can do it yourself with a VPN and some other tricks.
Without going too deep into the issue, the general gist of the matter is that, if you were willing to game the system a little, you could save quite a lot of money by buying games from other territories. As you can probably imagine, neither Valve or game publishers are happy about this behavior, but presumably the number of people taking advantage of this “bug” was small enough that it wasn’t worth fixing — until now. The introduction of region locking means that you can no longer buy a game in Russia (or another country where games are currently very cheap) and then add the game to a Steam account in another territory. (Side note: Apple also recently stopped online sales in Russia due to currency fluctuations.)
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While Valve hasn’t officially said anything about the region locks, they are probably due to fluctuating currency exchange rates. A couple of days ago, the value of the Russian ruble plunged about 20% against the US dollar — and presumably this meant that you could pick up games very cheaply on the Russian Steam store (some NeoGAF posters mention prices of under $5 in Russia for a game that would cost $40 in the US, though that isn’t confirmed). The ruble is rallying as I write this story, thanks to pressure from Russia’s central bank, but I doubt the stability will last — a huge amount of the country’s money comes from oil exports, and the price of oil has crashed from about $90 per barrel in October to just under $60 today.
Generally, countries in South America and south-east Asia have shown a weakening against the US dollar, though they don’t seem to have the same volatility as the ruble — so I’m not sure why Valve is enforcing region locks in those territories. In fact, this is probably a strong hint that this isn’t just a temporary thing — maybe the ruble crash is inconsequential, and what we’re actually seeing is a pre-planned, permanent introduction of region locks. I wouldn’t be surprised: While it was certainly nice being able to buy games at cheaper-than-intended prices, that’s a particularly hard position to justify — especially with the deep discounts and regular sales that are commonplace on Steam.
Now, I guess we either wait for an official announcement from Valve, or we check in a few days to see if the region locks are still in place. I get the feeling that they’re not going away, though. You may have to get used to buying Steam games at full price — and game trading forums like SteamGameSwap on Reddit will probably take a huge hit, too.
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